Young Love

Nick Pinkerton on All These Sleepless Nights

Michal Marczak, All These Sleepless Nights, 2016, HD video, color, sound 100 minutes.

“A WHILE BACK, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.” This is how the nineteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud bade adieu to his carefree salad days at the opening of A Season in Hell (1873)—for none are quite so attuned to the evanescence of youth as the truly young, who can actually feel the stuff slipping through their fingers.

It is on such a note of sober contemplation that Michal Marczak’s docufiction All These Sleepless Nights, a film that is most of the time very far from sobriety, begins. Krzysztof Baginski, a pale kid around twenty who favors a white T-shirt, jeans, and a pompadour, and who resembles an Egon Schiele drawing of James Dean, looks out at (imagined?) fireworks over Warsaw from a lofty apartment with an admirable skyline view, and in voice-over runs through some suspicious figures which refer to collating a lifetime’s experiences: seven months of sex, two years of boredom, seventeen hours of breakups.

Krzysztof is the nearest thing that All These Sleepless Nights has to a protagonist, and like the rest of the cast—mostly young Poles or transplants from around Europe and the US—he uses his own name in the film. He is seen floating from a house party to an after-hours bar to a basement club to an outdoor rave, through endless sessions of shit-faced palaver during what appears to be approximately twelve months in his social life following his breakup with a girlfriend of five years and what he terms the collapse of his “sense of stability.” The preamble gives a key to understanding Marczak’s approach to showing Krzysztof’s life—this isn’t the whole story, but rather the collection of a year’s worth of all-nighters, a memoir made of the stuff that no one can really remember the following day, a remembrance of blackouts past. The voice-over’s wistful tone also points to at least one of Marczak’s possible inspirations, Wong Kar-wai, whose whirligig presence is detectable here alongside something of the late style of Terrence Malick and Larry Clark’s abiding interest in the casual cruelty of the raw and green.

Among those for whom “likeability” is a concern, the movie may pose certain problems—I first heard tell of its existence from friends who’d seen it during its festival run and had disdainfully dubbed it All These Useless People. The elliptical structure leaves much out—we never discover, for example, how Krzysztof damaged the wrist that suddenly appears bandaged. Likewise, if Krzysztof has any abiding interests other than listening to music, dancing, chasing women, and getting fucked up, we see very little evidence of this, nor is there any indication that he has a job to report to over the course of a year, or how exactly he pays the rent on that apartment with its fantastic view. (At one point, a young woman asks him what he does, and he gives the cryptic-pretentious answer, “I look for what I am missing.”)

At first Krzysztof is sharing the pad with his friend and cackling partner-in-crime Michal (Michal Huszcza), with whom he is often found huddled up and talking about girls until it’s much too late to find any actual girls to talk to. They have a falling out not long after he hooks up with Michal’s ex, Eva (Eva Lebuef), an event that Michal pretends to take in stride. Youth, as shown here, does not consider consequences. Youth is also a kind of affront to those for whom youth is just an ever-more-distant memory, like the ratty middle-aged tipplers at a divey bar who heckle Krzysztof and Michal as “posh,” until the boys take the challenge and then effortlessly pin their antagonists to the wall, because they are younger and stronger and because they can.

Michal Marczak, All These Sleepless Nights, 2016, HD video, color, sound 100 minutes.

All this, not necessarily flattering, the film discovers and so recollects of youth. But it also remembers the potential for euphoria contained in the too-brief period when your metabolism holds fast, and when an excess of alcohol somehow makes you less rather than more tired—the enveloping sound track, which includes EDM, hip-hop, and a cameo from Françoise Hardy, is an irresistible inducement to head-nodders. The film remembers this moment of meeting between a child’s wonderment and a developing adult intelligence, when the still-fresh exploration of physical intimacy can encounter a new capacity for self-analysis, as when Krzysztof marvels, “When you sleep next to someone you alter the rhythm of your breath to that person.” It remembers the arrogance that allows for the straight-faced usage of phrases like “Gods of the City” or “Prince of the After Party,” and the sheer clumsiness too—there is a marvelous scene in which Krzysztof malingers around a rave waiting for a female acquaintance to say her goodbyes and come home with him as she’s agreed, only to discover her attention has drifted elsewhere, leaving him to wander off alone.

The better part of the film, shot in corybantic widescreen by a tandem of Marczak and Maciej Twardowski, takes place in a half light, somewhere between dusk and dawn, with few noteworthy exceptions—for example, when Krzysztof and Eva horse around at some museum display, sipping from a flask and gaping at an ancient Polish computer, a relic of a Communist past that predates their births. For the first hour or so, contemporary technology, outside of DJ equipment, is largely absent—these aren’t the millennials of thinkpiece lore, in constant thrall to smartphone screens and existing only to selfie, but kids like those of any generation, living in a constant breathless present—though eventually there are some intimate, candid boudoir shots seen in the cell-phone ratio, which seems appropriate, for perhaps only sex videos will remain to provide poignant testimony to extinguished love affairs in the twenty-first century, as packets of lavender-scented letters attest to those of the nineteenth.

Krzysztof and Eva go their separate ways, but the beat goes on and on and on, and Krzysztof keeps on dancing, often without a partner. It isn’t entirely inaccurate to say, as a few critics have, that All These Sleepless Nights grows repetitious as it carries on—but this shouldn’t necessarily be considered a pejorative in a movie that consists of a Dionysian revel slowly devolving into a desperation-tinged dance of death. Krzysztof doggedly follows the party as only a true believer could, and the film understands that there’s an essentially utopian impulse in partying, for the what-if-we-could-stay-like-this-forever, perfect-from-now-on feeling, once encountered, is very hard to let go of. The title of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (2014), a study in what happens when the heady cocktail of Peter Pan syndrome, EDM, and designer drugs is steadily imbibed up to the edge of forty, gets at exactly this. Judging from what I’ve seen of Marczak’s work to date, he has a special interest in what happens when utopians smack into the retaining wall of reality; his very funny Fuck for Forest (2012), likewise made in docufiction fashion, follows members of the eponymous Berlin-based environmental collective dedicated to using the proceeds of homemade porn to save the rainforests as they relocate to Brazil to encounter an indigenous population who has neither time nor patience for their freaky-deaky Eurotrash nonsense.

Krzysztof’s comeuppance, if you can call it that, is rather less dramatic. Toward the film’s close he’s picked up some dark circles around his eyes, looking noticeably older than when first introduced, and his ragers have gotten a little sadder too—at an after party at his place with some pushing-forty hipster in a Comme des Garçons tee, who doesn’t know Krzysztof’s name, lays out a line of coke as long as a party hoagie—though we’ve watched him become a much more expressive and uninhibited dancer through the course of his sentimental education. In perhaps the most jarring elliptical jump in a film full of them, the penultimate scene discovers Krzysztof sitting in a public park in a pink bunny suit with a microphone and portable amp, showering passing couples—many of them middle-aged or older—with compliments, nakedly envious of their grown-up stasis and security. But if adulthood, as I remember once hearing it defined, is the point where what you have to do the following day is more important than what you’re doing that night, we never see Krzysztof get there. Depending on the viewer, this may seem a condemnation or a reprieve.

Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is now playing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It opens Friday, April 14, at the IFC Center in New York.